I am writing these lines as the contestants of the Fortieth Annual 2016 ACM-ICPC have just unsealed the envelopes with the problemset of this year’s World Finals, held in Thailand, on the island of Phuket, hosted by Prince of Songkla University.
For participants, the next five hours would undoubtedly be among the most stressful yet unforgettable experiences of their lives.
While they are busy, I’m finding it fascinating to rethink the event as a whole several years after being part of it.
The dimension I used to understand well is what ACM-ICPC is to competitive programmers, their coaches, problemsetters, and judges. It is the community of like-minded, intensely focused, and for the most part nerdy-looking folks. Virtually every one of them sees solving challenging problems, by means of putting together quite a few lines of nontrivial program code, as one of the most satisfying activities in the world. They won’t trade the experience for anything else, and the World Finals event, testing one’s limits to their fullest, is the ultimate place to be.
Today I’m finding myself thinking more about what is ACM-ICPC held for, which role does it play, why is it important, and how to keep it as successful as it is today.
The World Finals are to empower. The World Finals are held because we all are here to make a difference. Above all, making the difference is about execution, and we know well how vital talent is when it comes to the modern world penetrated by software, data, and AI.
Every human is born with natural curiosity and problem solving skills that we grow and sharpen throughout our lifetimes. I was lucky to have a chance to speak with quite a few veterans here — participants, coaches, and organizers — from all around the globe. Interestingly, unlike in the Silicon Valley where I belong professionally these days, many share the belief one’s talent for programming is largely genetic.
It is not for everyone to master translating ideas and partially formed solutions into structured, at times cryptic, and for some still mysteriously inhumane language that computers can interpret and execute. It is certainly not for everyone to enjoy doing it on a regular basis.
Thus, the sustainable process of making the difference in the long run has to invest sufficiently into one “simple” task: discovering this scarce talent early on and helping it flourish.
Good news, geeks and nerds don’t really hide, and are easy to identify. Bad news, there is still social pressure for them to move towards enjoying things other than what they are the very best at: Solving problems, all the way from an idea to the fully-functional, tested, bulletproof program code that is ready to ship.
We can not predict the future, but we can tell with certainty top talent will be increasingly valuable. Thanks to the outbreak of technology we are living through, the growth rate of an impact a gifted individual can make as they channel their effort accordingly is orders of magnitude higher than the growth rate of the average increase of the world’s efficiency.
Despite all the pressure to make up something else of the event, the World Finals stays pure. Thanks to Bill Poucher’s solid Texan stance of promoting liberation of personal choices as the terminal value, throughout the years the contest stays focused on one thing and one thing only: Growth and excellence, achieved through respectful competition.
The World Finals is not a networking event — even though quite a few world-class professionals gather here.
And the World Finals is not an academia event either — even though many conferences would be jealous to have so many big names as attendees.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the World Finals is by no means a recruiting event — even though the contest floor may well be the place where many of the world’s biggest and brightest growing minds have gathered now, and many if not all IT giants are dying to have these folks accept their generous offers.
There are many ways competitive programmers choose to navigate their grown-up lives. Some go into academia, some end up in the industry, some start their own businesses. Some never grow up. And some manage to combine more than one of the above. Paths often diverge, and there’s really no common denominator: this year, next to official outfits it’s not hard to spot Google T-Shirts, CodeForces logos, and a few Quora Top Writer bags walking in between Darth Vader and a Playboy Bunny.
To change the world, along with execution one must have the vision. And the vision to empower talent to grow and evolve is the vision I will stand for.
Think. Create. Solve.